Phil Abraham has directed seven episodes of Mad Men, including the premieres for Seasons 3 and 4. We spoke with him about the new SCDP office, his all-time favorite scenes and the show’s quest for the perfect canned ham.
Q: How is directing a premiere different from directing a mid-season episode?
A: It’s both incredibly the same and also really different at the same time. It’s the same because it’s the same show and you’re with the same characters, and it’s a group of people who have all worked together. I remember doing the first shot on the first day in our new set, it was just like lining up a shot as we had done all along anywhere. On the other hand there is this learning curve of just being back together again. People have been away from the show for seven months. The first episode is always incredibly challenging, especially this year just being in a new space and a new environment.
Q: The new office feels very different from the old one. What differences stood out to you and how did you go about emphasizing them?
A: I think I probably deliberately chose not to emphasize them. I didn’t wanna show it off and say, “Woohoo, look at the new office.” This wasn’t their first day in the office so it shouldn’t be our first day in the office. It should be business as usual….One thing in particular that’s really different in terms of the spaces is that the old office had this very large bullpen area. The characters were always moving through and going to and from and many scenes were staged out there. The new office is much more of a cordoned-off series of hallways and spaces, which don’t as easily allow that kind of open walking. That’s something we all needed to get used to.
Q: Peggy seems to be a lot bolder and more at ease. Was that a directorial choice?
A: It certainly wasn’t a directorial choice. I think that aspect of her character is in the writing, in the material. She’s not necessarily bringing with her her past previous secretarial persona. She in a sense could be reinventing herself in this place, with new people around her. She’s a full-fledged copywriter with her own office, and I think that’s just where character has gone. She’s more assured.
Q: In the Thanksgiving scene with Betty and Henry Francis, you’re working with a lot of new actors. Is that a challenge?
A: Yes and no. It’s always great to work with guest actors because you’re digging into a new character. Is it a challenge? No more than working with any actor. It’s always a challenge to get the scene where you want it to be, but you can have those same challenges with your regular cast. I think it’s fun to work with guest actors first of all because guest actors are very, very excited to be on Mad Men.
Q: John Slattery directed Episode 4. Did you get to see him in action? What do you think his strengths are as a director?
A: Unfortunately I did not get to see him in action, but I have no doubt that John did an amazing job. Actually last year on Episode 8 ["Souvenir"], he shadowed me. He was interested in directing and asked if he could, and I was happy to have him do it. I think he just needed to see from the director’s point of view everything that happens in prep. I think he’s pretty familiar with what the director does on set, but prep was a different beast and he got to see firsthand all the endless questions and meetings and everything else you get bombarded with in those quick seven days. In fact he shadowed me again because [series creator Matthew Weiner] had given him the episode to direct and said why don’t you shadow Phil again during the first episode?
Q: On the flip side, have you appeared in any of the episodes?
A: [Laughs.] No, I never have. The opportunity has not arisen, and I would not necessarily want it to.
Q: No interest whatsoever?
A: You know what? I don’t think so. If Matt came to me and said I want you in this scene, you are the person I had in mind and this is what you had to do, of course I would be obliging. But I wouldn’t go there on my own. I remain firmly planted behind the scenes.
Q: You’ve directed seven Mad Men episodes altogether now. Is there a scene that you are most proud of?
A: The first thing that came to mind was in my first episode, “The Hobo Code,” the Peggy and Pete scene where Pete says to Peggy, “I don’t like you like this.” It was just a devastating scene and both Vincent and Elisabeth played it so incredibly well. It was that moment when you’re behind the camera and you feel it hit you in your chest. It just takes the wind out of you. I kind of had a little reprise of that moment in “Maidenform” when the guys are taking the client out to a strip club and Peggy inserts herself, and the client says, “Come here,” and she ends up sitting on his lap. She and Pete trade looks, and that kind of called back that scene from “The Hobo Code.”
Q: Is there a prop from this episode that was especially hard to get a hold of?
A: I can tell you one thing that comes to mind is the canned ham…. Ellen [Freund, the prop master] found this Polish canned ham and presented it to Matt and Matt goes wait a minute, the hams were bigger and thinner and looked different [back then]. And that sent Ellen… on a journey of finding the canned ham that Matt had in mind… She was just one step short of actually manufacturing the can in the way that Matt had remembered it being. Ultimately I think it was decided that the can she found was still a really good canned ham and in fact we found precedent that they had canned hams in that size from the period.